Tigers stacked, but there's work to be done

Tigers stacked, but there's work to be done

Tigers stacked, but there's work to be done
DETROIT -- The Tigers have a 1-2 hitting punch that's the envy of much of baseball. They have the best starting pitcher in the game, the reigning American League Cy Young and AL MVP, and the closer who led the Majors in saves without blowing a single opportunity.

Simply put, they have a stacked roster. They also have a ton of work to do this spring.

As much as Prince Fielder's arrival means toward putting runs on the board and fans in the seats, the Tigers still have to assemble the defensive alignment to make it work. Miguel Cabrera has been a third baseman before, but he hasn't been one in four years, making this year's camp more than just a six-week refresher course.

They'll have to figure out how their outfield will align, and how they'll divide up days in a designated-hitter slot that nobody will hold full-time, if things go as planned. They'll have to get a feel for how their outfield mix will work if that's the case, especially if left fielder Delmon Young gets any share of the starts at DH, and how they'll mix and match Ryan Raburn with Ramon Santiago at second base.

On the pitching side, the Tigers return their top four starters from last year's AL Central champions, but still have to figure out how to fill out their rotation at the fifth spot, which appears set to feature an in-house battle between top prospect Jacob Turner, breakout prospect Drew Smyly, once-hot-shot prospect Andy Oliver and more experienced prospects Duane Below and Adam Wilk. From there, the Tigers will try to replace the 11 wins they got out of Brad Penny last year despite his 5.30 ERA.

For a team that's expected to contend for an AL pennant, that's a long to-do list for camp. For manager Jim Leyland and his staff, however, it's a matter of turning a talented roster into a great team.

Pitchers and catchers report

Sunday, Feb. 19

Full squad reports

Thursday, Feb. 23

First Spring Training game

Tigers at Braves, March 3, 1:05 ET, Walt Disney World

Opening Day

Tigers vs. Red Sox, April 5, 1:05 ET, Comerica Park

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Can Cabrera play effectively at third base?
The Tigers committed to giving this infield shift a try once Fielder signed. Detroit still has the designated-hitter slot open, but neither Fielder nor Cabrera appear likely to be keen on that unless this shift doesn't work. Cabrera has always been eager to play third again, calling it his natural position, and he has lost weight to get ready for it. The test will be whether he has the range to make the reasonable plays there, not the plays Brandon Inge once made in his prime.

2. If Cabrera and Fielder aren't at DH, then who?
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski says they don't have a full-time DH. How many starts will go to Young, the left fielder in a contract year whose defensive plays sometimes look like a negotiation between his baseball instincts and his large frame? When he's the DH, do Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, Raburn or even Clete Thomas (remember him?) take over in left? Could Raburn shift to DH and make Santiago into a more regular player at second? And how many starts at DH could Cabrera get, even if the transition to third goes swimmingly?

3. Who will be the fifth starter?
Leyland has said more than once that he'll take talent, and if that stance holds, top prospect Turner would seem to have a heck of a chance to earn a Major League job at age 20. Talent-wise, he could be one of the best on the staff, but he has just six games above Double-A ball. He also has four left-handers competing with him to join a rotation that currently has four right-handers. Neither Below nor Wilk have the prospect pedigree, but they've both spent time in the big leagues. Oliver has more starts than any of them, though he struggled at Triple-A after his last stint. The wild card is Smyly coming off his standout first pro season.

2011 record
95-67, 1st in AL Central

Projected batting order
1. CF Austin Jackson:
  .249 BA, .317 OBP, .374 SLG, 10 HR, 45 RBI in 2011
2. RF Brennan Boesch:
  .283 BA, .341 OBP, .458 SLG, 16 HR, 54 RBI in 2011
3. 3B Miguel Cabrera:
  .344 BA, .448 OBP, .586 SLG, 30 HR, 105 RBI in 2011
4. 1B Prince Fielder:
  .299 BA, .415 OBP, .566 SLG, 38 HR, 120 RBI in 2011
5. DH Delmon Young:
  .268 BA, .302 OBP, .393 SLG, 12 HR, 64 RBI in 2011
6. C Alex Avila:
  .295 BA, .389 OBP, .506 SLG, 19 HR, 82 RBI in 2011
7. SS Jhonny Peralta:
  .299 BA, .345 OBP, .478 SLG, 21 HR, 86 RBI in 2011
8. LF Andy Dirks:
  .251 BA, .296 OBP, .406 SLG, 7 HR, 28 RBI in 2011
9. 2B Ryan Raburn:
  .256 BA, .297 OBP, .432 SLG, 14 HR, 49 RBI in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Justin Verlander, 24-5, 2.40 ERA in 2011
2. Doug Fister, 11-13, 2.83 ERA in 2011
3. Max Scherzer, 15-9, 4.43 ERA in 2011
4. Rick Porcello, 14-9, 4.75 ERA in 2011
5. To Be Determined

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jose Valverde, 49/49 saves, 2.24 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Joaquin Benoit, 2.95 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Phil Coke, 4.47 ERA in 2011

The new guys
1B Prince Fielder: As injury replacements go, Fielder is the most impressive fill-in acquisition since Alex Rodriguez replaced Aaron Boone in New York. Not only does Fielder replace Victor Martinez as the protection for Cabrera in the batting order, he adds a left-handed power dimension the Tigers haven't seen at Comerica Park since Curtis Granderson's final year, and never to this degree. More than a complementary hitter, he's a force. He's also the reason the Tigers have some shuffling to do this spring.

RHP Octavio Dotel: After bullpen depth cost the Tigers at least two games in the ALCS, they went out and added another veteran reliever, inking the well-traveled Dotel on a one-year contract with an option. If the 38-year-old is on his game along with Valverde, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke, the Tigers have one of their deepest bullpens in a generation, leaving Leyland to mix and match proven arms in the seventh to get to his late-inning duo.

C Gerald Laird: The last time Laird was seen in a Tiger uniform, he was getting the shrinking half of a platoon behind the plate with Alex Avila in 2010. Fast forward a year and a half, and Avila is an All-Star catcher, arguably the best in the AL. Laird returns as his backup, aiming to take some of the workload off the youngster to ease the wear and tear on his knees.

Prospects to watch
RHP Jacob Turner: Turner arguably stands as the most talented contestant in the fifth-starter derby, but at 20, he's also the youngest, almost two years younger than fellow prospect Smyly. On the other hand, this will be his third Spring Training with the Major League club, and he knows what to expect when games begin at the end of February. He had one decent start at the end of July and two bad ones in September, but the latter two seemed more a product of odd rest in an awkward effort to save him innings.

LHP Andy Oliver: A year ago, Oliver was Detroit's sixth starter, and their closest prospect to the big leagues. A wild season at Triple-A Toledo following two starts with the Tigers has him heading to this year's camp as the outsider in this year's fifth-starter competition. If he can recapture his command, even if it costs him a tick or two off his mid-90s fastball, he could force a decision on the part of Tigers management.

LHP Drew Smyly: Detroit's 2010 second-round Draft pick's first pro season earned him Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors with an 11-6 record and 2.07 ERA between Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. It also earned him an invite to Spring Training with the big league club, where he's a dark horse for the open rotation spot. He doesn't have the power fastball of Oliver or sinker of Turner, but his command and deception is impressive.

LHP Duane Below: Below went almost unnoticed a year ago in a Tigers farm system that featured Oliver, Turner, Smyly and Charlie Furbush, but his 9-4 record and 3.13 ERA with the Mud Hens demanded attention when the Tigers needed a midseason addition. His two starts were spot assignments, but he has a chance to earn the rotation spot if he can induce quick outs and get his command going early in camp.

3B Nick Castellanos: The Tigers' top Draft pick in 2010 stands as their best third-base prospect in a generation, but he's far from big league ready after a season at low Class A West Michigan. His non-roster invite to camp is meant as a learning experience for him to take to his next stop at Lakeland for high Class A ball.

OF Avisail Garcia: Now 20, the Venezuelan phenom's second trip to Spring Training should be another learning experience for him after an enigmatic season at high Class A Lakeland. His power began to emerge in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but it cost him some swings and misses. If he can make some adjustments at Double-A, he might be closer to the big leagues than many think.

On the rebound
OF Brennan Boesch: He made this list a year ago for his struggles at the plate down the stretch in 2010, but his 2011 campaign seemed to erase many doubts before a thumb injury ended his season in August. Not only does he go into the season with an everyday role pretty well secured in the outfield, he has the chance to earn a coveted spot hitting directly in front of Cabrera and Fielder.

OF Clete Thomas: The Tigers raised some eyebrows when they protected the 28-year-old following a mixed bag of a season at Triple-A Toledo. However, his second half at Toledo raised hopes that he recaptured his old form after microfracture knee surgery a year and a half ago. He comes to camp out of Minor League options, but with a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster.

Long gone
RF Magglio Ordonez: The Tigers will be without Ordonez in their camp for the first time since 2004, having parted ways with him in the offseason after a re-fracture of his right ankle knocked him out in the ALCS. He'll be bouncing back from a broken ankle for the second straight spring, just with another team.

IF Carlos Guillen: Guillen was one of the first pieces in the Tigers' rebound, with his first camp in Lakeland coming in 2004. His last several Spring Trainings had been injury rehabs or recoveries, which was part of the reason why he wasn't brought back.

RHP Brad Penny: Take a realistic look, and an 11-11 record and 181 2/3 innings aren't bad out of a Major League fifth starter these days. As much criticism as Penny received, he filled the job he was tabbed to do coming into camp last year. Now, the Tigers are counting on one of their younger arms to do the same.

3B Wilson Betemit: Lakeland never knew Betemit, a July trade acquisition who played in 40 games down the stretch in Detroit before getting nine at-bats in the postseason. He was always meant as a short-term addition, leaving open third base for someone else come 2012.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.